SINGAPORE (Aug 19): Digital technology has transformed how we communicate, commute, shop, learn and entertain ourselves. Soon enough, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data and the internet of things (IoT) could remake healthcare, energy, transportation, agriculture, the public sector, the natural environment, and even our minds and bodies.

Applying science to social problems has brought huge dividends in the past. Long before the invention of the silicon chip, medical and technological innovations had already made our lives far more comfortable — and longer. But history is also replete with disasters caused by the power of science and the zeal to improve the human condition.

For example, efforts to boost agricultural yields through scientific or technological augmentation in the context of collectivisation in the Soviet Union or Tanzania backfired spectacularly. Sometimes, plans to remake cities through modern urban planning all but destroyed them. The political scientist James Scott has dubbed such efforts to transform others’ lives through science instances of “high modernism”.

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